The Foods of Ferrante
The international press has been obsessed with Elena Ferrante in ways the local Neapolitan press never have been. Some people think they have unveiled her true identity. Some people think she is a man. Many people love the books. Most Neapolitans have either never read them or vehemently despise them. The reason for this is varied- just as the town of Naples is varied- something that gets lost in the books themselves. Neapolitans almost unanimously agree that Ferrante writes like someone who has left Naples- particularly the brutal post-war periphery of Naples that was as chauvinist as it was bleak. There is no subtlety or dimension to this portrait of Naples. It is simply a place of violence that one must silently endure or boldly escape.
I have read the books and have my own opinions- opinions that, as an adopted resident, are largely borrowed from my fellow Neapolitans who are ostensibly and proudly native. Often I have oddly experienced the city through the lens of the Ferrante books. Having read her work prior to living here in Naples, there have been moments as I walk through town and realize, I have read about this piazza, this corner, and this landmark before. Elena Ferrante’s books are neither love letter, nor exposé. These books are simply a stark portrait of a Naples at a crossroads- a Naples grappling with the aftermath of a foreign war.
The Second World War was not the first time Naples found itself in the crosshairs of feuding international powers. Before the Germans, there were Greeks, Romans, Angevins, Aragons and Bourbons. The Ferrante books never mention the Four Day Riot, in which local Neapolitans revolted and kicked out Nazi occupiers from the town in September 1943. Fair enough- the books start years later. More notably, Ferrante also fails to acknowledge or perhaps she willfully ignores that characteristic Neapolitan resilience that always manages to trump imperialism with a kind of jocular panache.
The Ferrante books fail in many ways to capture the joie di vivre that was, has been and likely always will be Napoli. But there is one, almost hidden aspect of the books that I often return to or reminisce about at unexpected moments while strolling through this, my adopted Napoli. And that is food—the foods of Napoli pop up at odd, even maybe wistful moments throughout the books. Ferrante perhaps hated, hates Naples. Or maybe she feels merely conflicted about her old town- and who doesn’t. Naples inspires many things- ambivalence is not one of them.
But one thing is certain- Ferrante recalls the tastes of Naples with an unmistakable, if jarring fondness that endears the palate and perhaps ignores the mind of the Neapolitan. The dishes that appear throughout the books are so iconic in their napoletanità that one wonder if maybe, just maybe, Ferrante misses the cucina povera of her native lands. Below, you will find a list of those Neapolitan dishes that casually appear in quotidian moments throughout Ferrante’s Neapolitan Chronicles.
Pasta e Patata (Pasta and Potatoes)
This dish is pasta and potatoes is undeniably Neapolitan. A fine example of cucina povera, poor peasant cuisine, pasta e patata combines a rustic mash of potatoes with a short cut mixed pasta, smoked provolone cheese and a dusting of black pepper. In the first book, My Brilliant Friend, Ferrante mentions that Lila’s mother, Signora Nunzia occasionally reads while stirring a casserole of pasta and potatoes. Later in the third book, Those Who Leave and Those who Stay, Ferrante tellingly refers to the pasta and potato dish again. After the book’s protagonist Elena Greco feuds with her mother over the fact that she will marry her fiancé in a civil ceremony rather than a Catholic ceremony, mother and daughter refuse to speak for days. One evening, Greco returns home late to discover a plate of pasta and potato reserved for her on the kitchen table. She eats the pasta and potato while re-reading passages of her first book, recently published to mixed reviews. The juxtaposition of pasta e patate and women reading books escaped my attention prior to living in Naples. Now I appreciate these passages as if reading a secret code. Pasta and potatoes is a testament to Neapolitan, mostly female, creativity in the face of poverty. To understand Naples, one must eat pasta e patata at least once.
Taralli (Almond Biscuits)
Take a stroll down the lungomare of Naples and you will instantly notice signs advertising hot taralli for sale. Taralli in Naples are doughnut shaped almond wafers that are often prepared with lard. That’s what makes them taste so good and also crumble all over your clothing as you eat them. Often locals enjoy taralli as a snack with a cold Nastro Azurro beer. These almond biscuits appear regularly throughout the Ferrante novels. Ferrante often references the tarallo as a symbol of the seaside. The seaside was something the poor children of the Rione seldom visited. And the tarallo was thusly something they rarely ate. Nino Sarratore, a slightly more privileged child of the Rione once spoke “with a tone of those who found it normal to go every so often to eat taralli and seafood.” Talk about stark- even a biscuit was considered a luxury item then in those quarters. Today I suggest you enjoy a tarallo on the Lungomare Caracciolo
Friarielli (Broccoli Rabe)
Any Neapolitan will proudly tell you that friarieilli, which is not quite the same as broccoli rabe, can only grown in and around Naples. The whole hilltop neighborhood of Vomero is called broccoli hill in reference to its once agrarian past. This bitter winter green pops up from time to time rather casually in the Ferrante novels often in unequivocally humble situations. When Lila’s and Lenù’s childhood friend, Pasquale gets a new job at a construction site near the train station he takes with him a panino of sausage and greens. Beloved by the wealthy and poor, the banker and the construction worker, friarielli is the great democratizer of the Neapolitan table. Strangely, Ferrante never refers to the vegetable as friarielli specifically in her books. She only alludes to it in reference to sausage and sandwiches, calling it “greens” in the original Italian version. Given the vegetable’s proud association with Naples, this is a striking linguistic, geographic, even culinary omission.
Potato Gattò (Potato Caserole)
To most people with even rudimentary levels of French, gattò (written gateau) means cake or cookie. Not so in Napoli. Here gattò means potato casserole and everyone’s mother allegedly makes the best version of the dish so watch out. Mashed potatoes are mixed with eggs, smoked provolone, mortadella and salami. When Lenù brings her new husband home to Napoli meet her parents, an almost instant topic of conversation is food. At least we can all agree Napoli does that well. Ferrante writes, “ he showed such a liking for the potato gattò that my mother served him a second very generous portion and promised him, even if in her usual reluctant tone, that she would make it again before he left.” Naples, as ever, leaves a strikingly first gustatory impression on all her foreign visitors- even the Italian ones.
Orzata (Almond Syrup Drink)
Before there were soft drinks like Coca-Cola, there were flavored syrups. In Naples, the summer favorite is still orzata- an almond milk syrup which is mixed with water and served cold. Even this seemingly minor reference to an almond drink is not insignificant in the Ferrante novels. At the time, commercially available carbonated beverages were for the wealthy. Coca-Cola was likely unknown in the kitchens of Lila and Lenù’s Rione. When Lenù visits Lila in her new post-nuptial home on a hot July day, young Lila offers her an orzata. This simple offer domesticates Lila. Gone are the day’s of childish pranks. Lila is now a wife, and like wives across the Rione, she offers her guest an orzata on a new tray- probably a wedding gift.
Where to Drink it: Bevende Corso Umberto I e Via Pietro Colletta